Archive for the 'Bird Behavior' Category

Jan 23 2014

Gregarious

House sparrows in snow in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  They sound a lot like this.(*)

You might not hear them in today’s cold weather but when you do it’s unmistakable.  They’re in a bush alive with birds … but you can’t see them.  I’ve tried to count them but they fall silent and hide when I approach.  I rarely see even one.

Here’s a flock in a tree, somewhat hidden but easier to see than inside a privet hedge!

House sparrows in a bush in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows love each others’ company so much that, according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, some travel up to four miles to join the roost.

“Gregarious” works for house sparrows — from Latin gregarius (from grexgreg- ‘a flock’) + -ous (to make it an adjective).

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

(*)  The sounds at the link above are similar but not quite the same as winter chatter because they’re from a more intense breeding chase in April.  Listen to this segment from BirdNote for all the sounds house sparrows make.

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Jan 08 2014

Staying Warm, Continued

Inca doves in a huddle (photo by Penny Meyer via Flickr, Creative Commons License)

In this week’s very cold weather it’s hard to stay warm but birds have a few strategies that help.

They eat a lot and they also naturally shiver to stay warm.  Shivering sounds pathetic but it actually works because the muscles generate heat.  The big pectoral (breast) muscles are the best for this.

Some birds shelter in nooks or crannies of hollow trees or on the outsides of our buildings.  Look at chimney tops and you’ll see starlings absorbing the warm exhaust.  On Monday I saw a peregrine at Pitt facing inward at a high window on the Cathedral of Learning.  The window was warmer than the surrounding air.

Other birds come indoors. On Monday afternoon Richard Nugent reported he’d found a Carolina wren sheltering in his heated garage as the temperature was heading for -12 degrees that night.  What a smart wren!  Richard put out food and water for the bird to enjoy while it waited for the weather to improve.

Huddling helps. Inca doves not only huddle sideways as shown above but they make pyramids two or three rows high.  According to Ornithology, as many as 12 Inca doves will form a pyramid, fluff their feathers and face downwind in a sheltered sunny place.  “In large pyramids, doves exposed on outside positions try for better positions in the top row and cause the whole pyramid to readjust.” This sounds like a circus act, amazing to watch.

Last night was the last of the bitter cold.  If the birds can make it through today the weather will moderate, then switch to above-normal temperatures this weekend.

Hang in there, little birds.  Help is coming soon!

 

(photo by Penny Meyer via Flickr, Creative Commons license. Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 158 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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Dec 29 2013

Take Me To The River

Peregrine bathing in the Monongahela River (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Yesterday, while the Christmas Bird Counters were absent from Duck Hollow, Michelle Kienholz stopped by to take a run on the Duck Hollow Trail.  Surprise!  From the parking lot she saw a peregrine falcon taking a bath in the Monongahela River.  Very cool!

A long time passed — at least 10 minutes — and the peregrine continued to stand in the water.  Michelle noticed a fisherman in waders standing further out than the peregrine but the falcon didn’t leave.  Why was it staying there so long?  Was something wrong?  She emailed me with a snapshot.

Peregrine bathing in the Mon River, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Peregrine bathing in the Mon River, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

I was at home logging the 6,000 crows I counted over my house at dawn when I received her message so I drove down to Duck Hollow to take a look.  No peregrine in sight but there was a merlin in the river near the fisherman!

The fisherman left the water, the merlin flew to a dead snag overlooking the river, and my phone beeped with another message from Michelle saying the peregrine had flown upriver after 20 minutes in the water.

I looked at the snag again.  The merlin was gone, a kestrel was standing in its place, and the merlin was in the river taking a bath.  Michelle came back from the trail and I showed her the other two birds.

Here’s the merlin bathing. Quite a different bird!

Merlin bathing in the Mon River, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

And then the merlin left…

Wet merlin leaving the river, 28 Dec 2013 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

 

I wish I’d been there earlier.  In Pittsburgh there are only three possible falcons — American kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon — and Michelle saw all three within half an hour.  A Falcon Sweep!   Her sightings were added to the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.

 

p.s. One of Michelle’s photos showed the peregrines’ bands. The USFW band is pinkish and shows ’160′ or ’760′ (right leg, left side of photo). The color band (left leg, right side of photo) is black/green and the black seems to end in ’5′. Who might this be?

Peregrine bathing in the Mon River at Duck Hollow (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

Dorothy, the matriarch at the University of Pittsburgh nest, has a pinkish USFW band with the number 1807-77607. Her black/green band is 5/*A.   Hmmmmm!

(photos by Michelle Kienholz)

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Dec 13 2013

Success Through Nepotism

Siberian Jay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The practice of giving plum jobs to your relatives is widely frowned upon but nepotism is a very successful survival strategy — so successful that some birds use it too.

Closely related to North America’s gray jay, Siberian jays (Perisoreus infaustus) live in the boreal forest of Northern Europe.  Like other corvids in limited habitats they breed cooperatively.   Each breeding pair has a suite of relatives who help guard the nest and feed the young.  Often the kids stay with their parents even though they’re old enough to breed.

Studies in Sweden have shown that male Siberian jays who stay with their parents are much more successful than those who leave home because their fathers practice nepotism.  The father jays protect their own sons and harass incoming males who try to join the group.  The sons thrive and learn while they wait for a good territory to become available.

The exception proved the rule.  Ekman and Griesser experimentally removed fathers and watched as they were replaced by despotic immigrant males who ejected the missing fathers’ sons.  If dad’s not there to protect you, watch out!

Success through nepotism.

 

(photo of a banded Siberian jay from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.
Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 390 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.
)

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Nov 28 2013

Band Of Brothers

Two male wild turkeys chase a police car in Moorhead, MN (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Chances are these turkeys are brothers, working together to chase the police out of their territory.

Wild turkeys are very social birds whose flocks are often composed of siblings.  This habit starts young when they’re all poults together and continues as adults.

Each sex within the flock develops a pecking order.  Literally.  Who has the right to peck someone else?  The ladies figure out the hierarchy and tend to leave it at that without a lot of jostling.  The guys, on the other hand, are always stirring things up.  Which of them is most dominant?  They fight about it.  In this case they’re fighting a police car.

Turkeys are brothers in love and war.  Groups of male turkeys strutting and displaying together are usually brothers, collaborating to attract the opposite sex.  One of them is dominant and he’ll get to mate with the ladies.  His brothers display but they don’t become fathers.

But don’t feel sorry for the lesser guys. Soon enough they’ll fight about it and a different male may achieve dominance in the band of brothers.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons of two male wild turkeys chasing a police car in Moorhead, Minnesota on April 29, 2013. Click on the image to see the original.  Today’s Tenth Page is inspired by page 338 of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill.)

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Nov 14 2013

Positive Parroting

African Gray Parrot (photo courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC))

If you watched Parrot Confidential on PBS NATURE last night you know that people fall in love with parrots’ charm and beauty but often adopt them with almost no information on their needs.

Unfortunately there aren’t many ways to learn about parrots except by trial and error.  This can lead to huge frustration and the birds’ surrender to an uncertain future.

If you already own a parrot or are contemplating a purchase or rescue, where can you turn?

Parrot Confidential’s website provides a list of conservation, sanctuary and advocacy resources across the U.S.   Even better, if you live in Pittsburgh you can get a hands-on education at the National Aviary’s Positive Parroting classes.

Twice a year Dr. Pilar Fish (head avian veterinarian) and Cathy Schlott (manager of bird training) conduct three two-hour classes that provide practical resources and information to lower frustration and keep the bird united with the owner.

I spoke with Dr. Pilar Fish about the classes.  She’s a life-long parrot owner, former rescuer and parrot advocate.  In fact she became a bird veterinarian because of her love for parrots. She can tell you that owning a parrot is a totally absorbing hobby, a lifelong relationship and a lifestyle-changing commitment.  As she says, “I’ve been there. I want to be a resource.”

Most people don’t realize that parrots are advanced, complex animals.  They have the intelligence and problem-solving skills of toddlers (African Grays are like 6-year-olds!) but the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old.  Imagine a child in its “terrible twos” confined to a small space with a single toy and the same food day after day.  Of course he’ll have tantrums!

In class you’ll learn how to adjust for the bird’s natural behavior.  What do these birds do all day in the wild?  If you provide your parrot with his natural routine and toys to occupy his mind he’ll be much happier.  So will you.  In class you’ll get a “cookbook” of habitats, schedules and tips and you’ll make toys to occupy your parrot and enrich his life.

The second part of Positive Parroting is about problem solving.  Cathy Schlott teaches how to train your bird in a positive way, reward good behavior and deal with behavioral issues.  She gives live demonstrations using the Aviary’s own parrots, some of whom are former pets.

Fall classes have already begun.  The first class, The Healthy Happy Parrot, was held on October 26.  Still to come are:

  • Pet Bird Enrichment, this Saturday November 16, 2013, 10:00 am—12:00 pm. (enhance natural behaviors)
  • Training Your Pet Bird, Saturday December 7, 2013, 10:00 am—12:00 pm (problem solving)

Click on this link for information on Positive Parroting.  Education is good!

 

p.s.  If you haven’t seen Parrot Confidential yet, watch WQED’s rebroadcast at 5:00am tomorrow, Friday November 15.  The online broadcast is available at Parrot Confidential’s website.

 

(photo of African Gray Parrot courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

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Nov 07 2013

Parrot Confidential

Blue and Gold Macaw (photo Courtesy of Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

No one knows for sure how many parrots are kept as pets in the U.S. — maybe 10-40 million — but we’re about to learn one thing: Thousands of them lose their homes each year and thousands more desperately need to leave their current situation.

On Wednesday November 13, PBS NATURE will premiere Parrot Confidential, the story of these intelligent, social, still-wild birds and their plight when a home with humans doesn’t work out.

Most parrots have successful relationships with their owners.  This is the untold story of the failures.  Jamie McLeod of Santa Barbara Bird Sanctuary explains, “People will say, ‘I want a bird that talks, that’s quiet, and that doesn’t bite.’  And that species has not yet been discovered.”  As a result, she says, “People typically keep parrots 2-4 years. The birds live 80 years.  Crunch those numbers out and there’s a lot of unwanted parrots out there.”

There are many reasons why a parrot-human relationship sours despite everyone’s best intentions.  The birds are highly social and demand lots of interaction and stimulation; in the wild they would never be alone.  Parrots take several years to become sexually mature and when they do they choose a mate.  In the absence of their own species they choose a member of the household, sometimes treating the rest of the family with aggression.  Changes in the human and pet family structure can trigger a parrot upset: the death of a loved one or addition of a new family member.  Some birds cope with stress by screaming, plucking and biting.

Unfortunately when a parrot needs a new home there aren’t enough shelters.  Some birds are emotionally scarred and go out for adoption over and over again.  The stories are sad but there are bright spots in the show to warm your heart:

  • There are dedicated parrot owners who love their birds and work to find what’s best for them.
  • The rescuers are real heroes.  Some have saved hundreds of parrots.
  • Some rescued parrots find a soul-mate of their own species at the shelter.
  • Because scarlet macaws are endangered in the wild, the ARA Project breeds rescued macaws in Costa Rica and releases their offspring to the forest.

I shed a few tears for the parrots, but partly for joy at the scarlet macaws flying free in Costa Rica.

Don’t miss Parrot Confidential on PBS NATURE, November 13 at 8:00pm EST.  In Pittsburgh watch it on WQED.

 

(photo of blue-and-gold macaw courtesy Joe Brunette/©2013 THIRTEEN Productions LLC)

p.s. See the comments for a discussion of parrot longevity.

Update on November 21:  Watch the entire show online at the Parrot Confidential website.

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Nov 04 2013

Feed In The Middle If You Can

Semipalmated sandpiper (photo by Steve Gosser)

For two years Guy Beauchamp carefully watched the behavior of migrating semipalmated sandpipers on the tidal flats at the Bay of Fundy.  He noticed the birds were doing something that no one had ever reported.

The sandpipers on the edge of the flock kept their heads up while feeding.  They were always on the lookout for danger, especially for merlins or peregrines that could easily snatch one of them.  Meanwhile the sandpipers in the middle were more relaxed and kept their heads down most of the time.  It turns out the birds in the middle were eating different food than the ones on the edges.

The birds on the edge of the flock pecked quickly at amphipods (similar to tiny shrimp) that were easy to see.  Their sentinel behavior made it safe for those in the middle to swish their beaks back and forth and filter the tidal slurry of diatoms (algae) and phytoplankton.  Swishing behavior wouldn’t have been possible if the flock hadn’t posted sentinels.  The birds had the advantage of living in a group.

This semipalmated sandpiper is alone, feeding with his head up, and probably has an amphipod in his beak.

I’ll bet he’d like to feed in the middle of the flock if he could.

Read more about this study here in Science Daily.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Oct 29 2013

More Males Than Females

Summer tanagers, male and female (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an amazing fact: Among birds, and especially among declining species, there are more males than females.

It’s always easier to find male birds during breeding bird surveys.  They’re clothed in conspicuous colors and put on a big show, singing and displaying to claim territory and find a mate.  Females are hard to see because they don’t sing, are often cryptically colored, and are secretive around the nest.  Unfortunately it’s not just flashiness that makes males easier to count.  The males are saying “Notice me!” because there aren’t enough females to go around.

In 2007, after reviewing hundreds of scientific papers, ornithologist Dr. Paul Donald concluded that in the vast majority of bird species males outnumber females. This means we can’t extrapolate the size of a breeding population based on the number of males we count.

Why does this happen?  Dr. Donald explained, “It’s not that females are producing more sons than daughters, because at hatching the sex ratio is generally equal. The only possible explanation is that females do not live as long as males. As generations grow older, they become increasingly dominated by males as more females die off.”

Dr. Donald also found that the skewed sex ratio is even worse among endangered birds and at its worst among the rarest species.  He hypothesized this is due to predation of females while on the nest — the double whammy of killing current and future generations at the same time.

Summer tanagers gave me personal experience with this sex ratio phenomenon.

The City of Pittsburgh is outside the summer tanagers’ range so it was quite rare that I found a pair of summer tanagers breeding in Schenley Park in 2011.   I noticed them just after their nest failed (due to a predator) because the male was impossible to ignore.  He was so angry he was shouting at everyone.

He and his lady tried for a second nest but it was too late in the season and they dispersed without success.  The next spring he was back again and easy to see.  He called and displayed, sang and sang, but she never showed up.  He was alone and that made it much easier for everyone to find him.  In 2012 he never had a mate.

This year he didn’t show up at all.   I assume both he and his lady have died.

Fortunately summer tanagers have a very wide range and their population is doing well — they are listed as “Least Concern” –  but they illustrated Dr. Donald’s finding:  Among most bird species there are more males than females.

 

(photos of summer tanagers (male on left, female on right) from Wikimedia Commons)

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Oct 22 2013

Strong Opening

 

If you’ve ever had a pet starling, you know their beaks are very powerful when opening.  That’s because European starlings have the unusual characteristic that their jaws are strongest in reverse.

It’s a counter-intuitive trait.  Our jaws are strongest when we clamp down.  William Beecher discovered that starlings’ jaw muscles are at their best when they spring open and that their eyes automatically rotate forward for binocular vision as they open their beaks.  This gives them an excellent look at potential prey in the hole they’ve just probed open and probably contributes to their success in winter.

Even as pets, starlings can’t help but probe.  It’s in their blood.  HayleyM‘s pet starling, Lolly, opens her son Aidan’s mouth as a dentist might.  Notice that beak action!

Don’t try this at home!

 

Click here to view the original video and read in the comments how this orphaned starling became a pet.  Also read the important notes in the p.s. below.

(video on YouTube, uploaded January 2011 by HayleyM)

 

p.s. Important notes:

* In North America, European starlings are one of only two wild birds (the other being the house sparrow) that can be kept as pets without a permit.  Both species are listed as invasive.

* In addition to the possibility of people catching disease from birds, HayleyM added this note to the video: “After review by my good friends at Starling Talk (www.starlingtalk.net), I have found out that this is an ill advised practice. Apparently the bacteria in the human mouth can actually make a bird sick.”

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